Understanding Consumer Ethics in Latin America: A guide for boosting respondent engagement through ethical incentives
Using donations to non-for-profit organization as respondent incentives is a practice used by many MR companies. At first glance this seems to be a win-win strategy, making the process simpler while doing a good thing. Furthermore, having more affluent consumers donating their incentives to their needy nationals sounds particularly appropriate for Latin America. In spite of recent economic success in terms of growth and poverty reduction, the region still shows world records in social inequality, being this topic on the top of the political agenda and public concerns.
However, what still needs to be proved to turn these practices into sustainable corporate social responsibility programs (CSR), is that using donations as incentives might not only be a goodwill gesture, but also an effective strategy that actually encourages participation.
Ethical incentives do work if they are set properly!
We often hear about the contemporary world’s moral decadence, lost in hyperindividualism and consumerism. But this simple view ignores, among other things, the amount of voluntary work, and the emergence of new values related to tolerance, human rights or ecological concerns.
In Latin America is very famous the experience of Teleton a charity that has organized in Mexico, Chile and other countries in the region all-day TV shows to collect millions of dollars for disabled children.
Over the last decade, we have witnessed in several surveys through out the region that same kind of generosity trough a proportion of participants who have been happy to donate their incentives instead of taking the money, demonstrating that self-interested economic reward is far from being the only argument that motivates respondents to take part in surveys.
But of course we shall not be as naïve as to believe charity will do all the work. Overestimating respondent willingness to donate can also be misleading. Some years ago, on a pilot consumer panel building effort, we offered donations as the only possible reward to join, leading to a total failure and tiny response rates. The underlying insight was that forced moral choices generate rejection.
Understanding this optional feature of contemporary social ethics becomes critical for CSR programs success.
Lessons from the Campaign for Haiti
In January 2010, Haiti,, the poorest country in Latin America, was shocked by a catastrophic earthquake. This lead to hundred of thousands of victims and over one million homeless people. UNICEF organized the initial humanitarian efforts and 6 days after the disaster we received their request for help.
Even when by that time we had used donation schemes for several surveys partnering with UNICEF offices in Brazil and Argentina, we realized that the only way we could respond quickly was involving our Latin American Physician Panel enabling doctor panelists to donate their fees for online survey participation to this cause.
In a matter of weeks we were surprised to collect over 2000 school kits for Haiti children, which exceeded all our prior expectations.
However, timing proved to be critical. On the first week of the campaign, a couple of weeks after the disaster, 39% of the doctors decided to donate their honoraria but 5 weeks later, when the topic disappeared from the news, only 8% decided to do the same. The first lesson was that that we shall expect solidarity to work with the same kind of impulsiveness than the TV show donation campaigns.
We also faced an unexpected result, which turn out to be an interesting finding. On the initial tests we conducted an experiment by offering to half of the respondents only money, while offering to the other half the option of taking the money or donating it to Haiti. The unexpected result was that the fee-only option got a significantly higher response rate.
The interpretation of the data suggested that the ethical dilemma before engaging paralyzed many panelists discouraging their participation. Deciding to participate or not, and if they did if they should privilege their pocket or their hearts, was too much for many.
The solution we came up with, was offering the money as usual and presenting the donation choice only once the person had taken part. So our second lesson was to avoid placing early ethical dilemmas!
The third lesson was less of a surprise. We offered full incentives (equivalent to a private consultation fee) to those doctors who completed and a smaller incentive to those who were screened out. While roughly half decided to donate their small screen out incentives, only one tenth decided likewise with the larger amount.
After this regional pilot experience with the UNICEF campaign for Haiti, we have developed a systematic CSR panel program with other organizations. And again we have consistently seen these same results with 3 different national beneficiary institutions.
No doubt that generosity pours more easily when pennies are involved! However it is also true that including small amounts has helped to increase the penetration of panelists participating in our CSR program who donated part of their honoraria either in Brazil (47%), Mexico (46%) or Argentina (54%).
As aptly suggested by the French Sociologist and Philosopher Gilles Lipovetski, whilst there is no doubt that the ideals of moral sacrifice and rigid self-discipline seem to be things of the past, mobilizations for ethical reasons, undoubtedly more spasmodic and inorganic, instead of being opposed to hyper-individualism could be one of its privileged expressions, a way of constructing self identity.
Thus, if you want to run a successful CSR program by using donation of incentives, be prepared for an ongoing communication with your respondents to keep them engaged over time, include small incentives as part of the package, avoid placing early ethical dilemmas and most importantly make sure you rule out you-must-do-it commandments but offer instead the chance to help in a meaningful cause as an opportunity for a free will expression.
We hope that by sharing these experiences we can encourage to develop more and improved CSR programs, since a good execution of them will not only be appreciated by respondents, clients, suppliers and staff, but will also be a modest contribution that we, as market researchers, can make towards a better world.
About the Author:
Diego Casaravilla, is Managing Director of Fine Research Latin America, a fieldwork oriented market research institute with offices in Sao Paulo, Mexico City and Buenos Aires.
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